Black-necked swans are elegant birds with long, gracefully-curved black necks and snow white bodies. When a male black-necked swan chooses a mate, the two often remain together for many years, and sometimes for life. These regal birds can be found in various coastal areas of southern Chile, including the Island of Chiloé.
While staying in Ancud, Chiloé, I was determined to find black-necked swans. Chiloé was a big island, and I needed to know where to look. So I approached the young Chilena at the front desk of the hostel where I was staying, and I asked her about places to find the swans. She suggested Caulin, another coastal town located a little bit north of Ancud. She let me know that a local bus left once a day to Caulin, departing in the morning and returning to Ancud late afternoon.
On the morning of my trip to Caulin, I prepared a small ham sandwich, which I put in my backpack along with a bottle of water, and set out for the local bus station. At the station I boarded a little green bus, the only gringo among a smattering of locals. I made sure to tell the bus driver where I was going.
Several kilometers outside of Ancud, the bus turned onto a dirt road and the ride became a bit bumpy and dusty. The route became more rural and isolated. I was feeling some anxiety. Unlike the other passengers, I wasn’t at all familiar with the place where I was going. I was relying on the bus driver to let me know when we arrived in Caulin. But even after being deposited in Caulin, I would have no idea of exactly where to go.
Eventually the dirt road began paralleling a bay. I noticed the bus driver looking at me through the rearview mirror. When we made eye contact, he asked me where I wanted to go in Caulin. I had no idea. I told him, “No estoy seguro. Quiero ver los cisnes de los cuellos negros.” – “I’m not sure. I want to see the black-necked swans.” The driver nodded his head in understanding and stopped the bus next to a beach along the bay. He told me what time he would be passing by in the afternoon. He stressed that I not miss the afternoon bus because there wouldn’t be another until the next day.
Standing on the roadside as the bus pulled away, I scanned the area. I saw that Caulin was a small village, a collection of modest wooden homes dotting the shoreline. The pebbly beach stretched out for many kilometers, forming a semi-circle along the bay. There wasn’t a soul in sight. The only sounds I heard were the wind blowing in off the bay and the waves slapping the sand.
At first this desolation scared me. But then I felt excited about having this beautiful place all to myself. While it was a bit chilly, the sun was out, and it was a great day for walking on the beach. Stepping off the dirt road and onto the beach, I scanned the waters of the bay. I quickly spotted a raft of black-necked swans floating just off shore. They were eating seaweed. I spent some time snapping pictures of the swans as they used their bills to pluck dark green seaweed from the water.
I decided to walk down the beach toward the mouth of a small river where a few yellow fishing boats were moored. As I walked I encoutered various other birds: a family of steamer ducks, a group of oystercatchers with bright red bills, a few solitary whimbrel, several gatherings of gulls, and a number of small, brown sandpipers. I took more photos.
I noticed that angry looking rain clouds had formed out over the bay. The onshore wind was rapidly ferrying the clouds across the bay and toward the beach. I knew that rain would be upon me soon. I looked for a place to seek shelter. I spotted a corrugated metal shack tucked just off the beach. I made it into the shack just before the dark clouds arrived and released heavy raindrops which crashed noisily onto the corrugated metal. I stood in the empty shack eating my ham sandwich while waiting out the passing deluge. Soon it was sunny again.
Continuing down the beach, I saw a procession of black-necked swans streaming out of the mouth of the river near the bobbing yellow boats. The procession grew in length with each step I took. Dozens and dozens of swans were slowly drifting into the bay. I quickened my pace and soon reached the mouth of the narrow river. The flotilla now consisted of hundreds of swans, and stretched out for a few hundred meters.
I stood for a while taking pictures of this spectacle. Toward the back of the flotilla there were a few mother swans carrying their young on their back. The baby swans were covered in a fluffy coat of gray down. It was amazing that the babies were able to stay atop their mother’s back.
When I’d had my fill of swan watching, I started heading back along the beach. I walked slowly, as I had plenty of time before the bus arrived. On the way back I snapped a few pictures of a lovely old wooden church. Chiloé was home to many old wooden churches, some dating back to the 1700s.
The bus returned a little late and picked me up along the roadside. To my surprise, not too far ahead the dirt road disappeared. The only way forward was to drive on the beach. The driver was casually talking with a passenger to his right when he steered the bus onto the beach. He began driving over a stretch of green, slimy seaweed piled on the beach by the tide. I thought to myself, how cool is this? But the seaweed was piled thick, and was super slippery. Soon the wheels of the bus began to slip, and the back end of the bus started sliding sideways. The driver tried to steer out of the slide and revved the engine. The spinning wheels dug deep into the pile of seaweed, trying to find purchase. The bus stopped moving forward. We were stuck – big time.
The driver and another Chilean man left the bus to inspect the situation. I was left on the bus with a bunch of chattering women. They had thick Chilote accents, and I couldn’t understand any of their Spanish. I got off the bus, too. I saw that the back wheels were buried deep in the seaweed. The two men were using sticks they’d found to dig away the seaweed. I found a stick and joined the two men.
The driver tried several times to get the bus moving forward. But each time the wheels started spinning freely, slipping and sliding on the seaweed and slick rocks underneath. Eventually one of the men on the bus walked to get help. He returned with a man who had a couple of shovels. With better tools, the bus was freed.
Sometimes it’s exciting when things don’t go as planned, like when a bus gets stuck in seaweed.